Madhosh Balhami was sitting in his courtyard feeding his two cows grass one afternoon in March 2018, when he heard the sound of gunshots at a distance. A short time later, three men came running past him, towards a leafy, tree-lined path descending on his left. As soon as they took a few steps down the stairs, they abruptly turned and came running back, straight into Balhami’s brick-and-stone house in Balhama, a saffron-growing village on the outskirts of Srinagar.
He knew at that moment that his house was marked.
Balhami is the pen name of Ghullam Mohammad, a 52-year-old saffron farmer and poet. The three men who had run in were members of Ghazwat-ul-Hind, a new militant group led by Zakir Musa that claims links to Al Qaeda and supports the Islamic State. Hours after the militants ran into his house on 15 March, Indian security forces set his house on fire.
At that time, the only thing Balhami knew about the men was that they were young. They looked like children, he thought. “They said, ‘We are so tired, we need to die. We don’t want to be captured alive. So please, you go from here and save your own life,’” Balhami recounted two months later, sitting on a thin rug in the only remaining room of his house.
Unable to persuade the militants to leave, Balhami and his family ran out of their house, carrying nothing. His two cows were left standing in the court yard, Soon afterward, the security forces who had been chasing the militants appeared. There were thousands of them, he said—they had surrounded the entire village. He was watching from his brother’s house, a short distance away. They heard the sound of mortar shells. Around 6 pm, they saw the house burning. It burned until two o’clock the next morning, Balhami said. No one slept that night.
The following morning, the forces were gone, but the fire would continue to burn and raise smoke for five more days. When Balhami came back, he saw that the copper pots and plates in the house had melted. His two cows were unharmed. “These people,” he said, referring to the security forces, “saved the cows, but did not save the humans. They took care of them very well, even gave them grass.” Balhami lost almost everything—his clothes, his family’s cooking vessels and a lifetime’s worth of poetry.
Balhami started writing poetry at the age of 20, after his father, also a saffron farmer, died. His father never knew his son’s affinity for poetry. In the early days, Balhami would write naats, religious lyrics in praise of the prophet Mohammad. His poetry changed in 1990, he said, after an encounter with the police. One day, as on the day in March, he was sitting in his home when a few police officers burst in. “They caught me and they started questioning me. ‘How many militants are there in your village?’” he said. “They tied me to a tree and started beating me. That’s when my sympathy with the militancy began.”
He had by then gained something of a reputation for his naats, having published a few volumes of religious poetry. But violence in the Valley escalated during the 1990s, impacting many who were not directly fighting for the separatist cause. “Then I said, this is truly what oppression is, and we should raise a voice against oppression,” Balhami told me. “I really feel like this because I myself have seen India’s oppression, its atrocities.”
After the tree incident, Balhami had more violent encounters with security forces.
He wrote this poem in 1994, after his first stint in jail, where he imagined a time when Kashmiris would live free of India’s violent occupation:
Kab tak tumhai rondai ga Samrajai bei zameer
kab tak chalai ge ham pai jabr-o- Kehar ke shamsheer kab tak rahai ge ahai mazloom beitaseer
Ye khwab hoga laziman sharmandai tabeer aik roaz savar jayegi bigde huwi takdeer
Ham kaat he dalaigai tasalud ke yai zanjeer
aye jannat-e-Kashmir, aye Jannat-e- Kashmir.
How long will you be trampled by this imperialism without conscience? How long will we remain under this sword of oppression?
How long will the sighs of the wronged ring without impression? The interpretation of this dream will definitely come to be
One day this decaying destiny will change
We will cut down these chains of oppression
O this heaven of Kashmir, O this heaven of Kashmir
In his more than three decades of writing poetry, Balhami became particularly well known after his house was destroyed. “Only those poets who enjoy the patronage of the state, they become very popular. He would never want to go to government functions,” Raashid Maqbool, a media researcher and a long-time reader of Balhami’s work, said. “He is a poet who has lived through every line of his poetry.” Balhami’s tongue is sharp, calling out whatever injustice he sees, whether it is Indian security forces or the Hurriyat leaders, whom he refers to as “big men” with “small hearts.” In the past, he would recite his poetry at religious and separatist gatherings. Once, after a militant was killed, Balhami was invited to recite his work in memoriam. He never published his political poetry, though, because of concerns about his security.
However, the fact of Balhami’s writing was common knowledge in certain circles. At one point, Balhami said, an army major came to his house one day and ordered him to stop writing poetry. “He threatened to kill me if I wrote again.” In the 1990s, police arrested Balhami three times, charging him under the Public Safety Act for allegedly being a militant and owning weapons. He spent around seven years in jail, he said, but has never been a militant, only a poet. “The militants never asked me to pick up a gun and join them. They said you are doing your job, continue with it.”
Balhami said his bravery “diminished a little” after he was tortured by security forces. “Then, I made my tongue a little softer.”
He continued to write in Kashmiri and sometimes in Urdu: love poetry, nationalist poetry, elegies called marsiyas in the Urdu tradition. He wrote whenever he got the chance, his wife, Fiza, said. In the beginning, she used to yell at him for writing, calling it useless, but she eventually got used to it. She has never heard his poetry, nor read it, being unable to read.
Balhami has not had a chance to write much since the fire. After he lost his home, many people from South Kashmir came to visit him and Mohi-ud-in Mir, his neighbour, whose house was also damaged in the fire. “They wanted to congratulate me, ‘Oh how provident that three of our youths had become martyrs in your house,’ they said. You are a fortunate man.” He was comforted by their empathy, but it did not translate into material assistance.
In south Kashmir, neighbours regularly band together to help people who have lost their homes in firefights. There, in the districts of Anantnag and Shopian, people raise sums of around Rs 10 lakh, Balhami has heard. But it is not the case in his village, he said.
Balhami is paying for the rebuilding of his father’s home himself. It will cost around Rs 25 lakh. The village had raised two lakh after his house was burned, but he does not want to take that money. “I did not take the locals’ money because I did not want to listen to taunts later. ‘See we have helped you’—I did not want to hear that.” Instead, he plans to sell half his acre of land.
No one from the government has helped either. “There’s an MLA here and he came once, and he said ‘I will do this myself,’ but it didn’t happen,’” Balhami said. He did not go back.
The state government of Kashmir does have a policy of providing compensation for those who have lost their homes—up to Rs 10 lakh for people whose houses are completely destroyed, according to a senior official in the state administration who did not want to be named. According to media reports, however, victims are often denied compensation, or receive a meagre amount after major delays.
Almost every month, there is a district meeting, headed by the district magistrate, where the civil administration and the security forces meet to discuss applications for compensation. Balhami’s case did not come up in the meeting in May nor does he plan to plead his case to the district administration in Srinagar. “We all know that this disgraces a man. This will strip him of his honour, and still he will not get anything from them,” he said. “One needs to hold on to one’s honour.”
After the encounter, the only part of his house that remained standing was the façade and the kitchen, which was built as an annex. When the security forces cleared out, the family moved into the kitchen, which is where they have lived since. “Now even this room feels like a big space,” Balhami said, gesturing at the space, which he shares with his wife, two sons and one daughter. All that remains of the family’s personal belongings fits into a large wooden chest kept by the wall. Balhami was wearing his only set of clothes—a brown long-sleeved shirt and a pair of trousers.
He suffers no regrets about any of what was lost or anything that has happened. “Sometimes I think about how hard I worked,” Balhami said.
“For twenty-some years I had written something that has now vanished. But I think of it as an act from god. If my poetry had been sold in the market, who knows what would have happened? I might have lost my life. So whatever happened, it is alright.”